Being a List of the Assorted Horrors I've Consumed During the Month of February, 2013
Though quite the understatement, it would be fair to say that I watch a few more horror films in any given month than I find the time to cover here on the blog. I began the blog almost a year ago with the intention of it being a screening diary, in which I hoped to more or less write about every horror film I watched. This was almost immediately stifling: not only was I forcing myself to write a developed entry about everything I happened to see (no matter how difficult or uninteresting that task may have been), but this dictum actually began to persuade me against watching as many horror films as I generally do, knowing that if I watched fifty or so horror movies in a month I'd feel that nagging compulsion in the back of my mind to write about them. The switch to monthly themes in the last half year or so of this blog's life has both given the blog a novel organizing principle and liberated me from the its initial mission.
Nevertheless, this decision has prevented a wealth of good (and execrable) films that I've been watching from being included here on the blog, so from here on out I'm going to split the difference by presenting a new monthly feature called Footstones. These Footstone entries will be the first of every month and will be a collection of brief-ish capsule commentaries on those odds and ends that I've watched but that didn't fit the previous month's theme. With any luck, these entries will soothe my writerly conscience and provide you, gentle reader, with some bite-sized thoughts for mastication.
For more capsule-shaped reading fun, make sure to check out my freshly published Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 list over at Rupert Pupkin Speaks.
Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) dir. John Ottman
Jamie Blanks's Urban Legend (1998), with its adoption of a clever but never cloying metanarrative, adherence to the bombastic and ludicrous tenor of slashers past, and utilization of Rebecca Gayheart's massive hair, rests unquestionably in the top tier of post-Scream slashers. John Ottman's follow-up can't claim the same heights. It's a decent entertainment, featuring likeable enough characters and some moderately cute (though ultimately underdeveloped) methods for connecting this followup to the first film. But its insane jumps in logic and storytelling (moves which felt organic in the first film) here seem overly calculated, as if they're missing the wit they think they possess (see: most of the jokes, the twin twist). Moreover, its film school setting is about as nauseating and false as such fictional depictions tend to be (see: resources as good as any Hollywood production and Joey Lawrence on his cellphone calling up his Tinseltown connects). It sounds like a snub to say that the best part of Final Cut is its closing credits, but if you've seen the film you'll understand: oh, what it could have been! Though I can't remember any compulsion to see it at the time (which is nearly unthinkable considering my affection for the first film), this sequel was not a direct-to-video release. It received a genuine theatrical run and even made a profit, though it only wound up taking in about half of the business that Blanks's film did. Indeed, a second sequel, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005), which breaks away from the series' slasher roots on a supernatural tangent (Hello, Mary Lou), was released direct-to-DVD. Maybe someday it will haunt my television set, but Final Cut didn't leave me champing at the bit for more.
Bait 3D (2012) dir. Kimble Rendall
Yet there was, to no surprise, much ch[o]mping in this Australian "Sharks in a Supermarket" flick. The concept does not stretch much further than that, nor would we want it to. (Though, a case could be made for it bravely venturing outside its comfort zone by also including a "Shark in a Parking Garage Beneath a Supermarket" subplot.) This is director Kimble Rendall's first film after careers in rock music and second-unit direction, and perhaps in consequence of this the film seems as if its been whittled from the creative hands of an entertainer rather than an artist or storyteller. It is, in a couple of words, idiotic fun. Bait 3D's melodramatic dialogue and broadly sketched characters often left me rolling in laughter. Admittedly, the shark action (the raison d'être for this sort of spectacle) is subpar, creating not a lick of genuine tension-- especially in contrast to another recent Australian shark attack flick, The Reef (2010)-- but one cannot help but admire the genuine enthusiasm with which the filmmakers approach their sublimely goofy scenario.
Shark Night 3D (2011) dir. David R. Ellis
I was quite thrilled with the insanity-fueled high Bait 3D had left me with, but I happened to be snowed in on this particular night so followed it up with this gem from the late, great schlockmeister David R. Ellis (helmer of the two best films in the Final Destination series, parts II and IV). The buzz I'd heard from folks upon its release was none too kind, with most harping on its neutered PG-13 style. But I wonder if those reviewers walked in biased because of the ludicrous pretense that PG-13 horror can never be good, because what's here (perhaps in spite of or maybe even because of its self-imposed restraint) is extremely entertaining. Such restraint forces the film to create appeal in its other aspects, which Shark Night does. The risk that runs with total gore freedom is dreck like Silent Night (2012) or even Piranha 3D (2010), the latter of which is a decent film but still rests on its "Gore is entertaining/funny, huh?" laurels and can't bother to be appealing otherwise. (Like, if this movie were made by the director of Silent Night the sharks would have slowly eaten Katharine McPhee's boobs for 10 minutes while Donal Logue poured beer on the wounds and belched.) Shark Night is blankly likeable characters doing silly things in a preposterous situation. I suppose a lot of its appeal for me is it's odd wholesomeness, which is a rare trait in the Grunge City that is '00s-'10s horror. I mean, just look at this. This is the kind of stupidity we need more of in this genre. The villains in Shark Night hate college kids so much that they decide to populate a salt-water lake with various species of sharks and feed said college kids to them so that they can then sell the footage they film of this chomping to the Discovery Channel for Shark Week. Fantastic.
Screamtime (1986) dir. Michael Armstrong & Stanley A. Long
First Maxim: Horror anthologies are intrinsically enjoyable viewing experiences-- a lousy segment or two won't prevent at least one of them from capturing your fancy. (Even the abysmal V/H/S (2012) managed not to disappoint on this count.) Second Maxim: British horror anthologies are best of all. (View all of the Amicus anthologies and then try to mount a counter-argument. You have been dared.) With these general truths in mind, I'm happy to report that Screamtime, a low-budget slasher-inflected British horror anthology from the mid-80s, is certainly a pleasure, if not particularly the strongest example of the form. Though its third and concluding segment (about some sentient killer garden gnomes) is a bit deficient in its execution, the first two segments (the first about the bloody family problems of a beleaguered Punch & Judy show proprietor; the second about a woman receiving disturbing visions of the future after moving into a new house) are excellent slices of thrill 'n' chill. The wraparound segment, about a couple of oafish thieves watching the pilfered segments on their VHS player only to find those segments' antagonists appear in reality, is as much of a flat note as it sounds, though it does provide us a brief but utterly tantalizing glimpse inside of a UK-based video store in the pre-Nasties 1980s. What we see: a veritable wonderland.
The Kindred (1987) dir. Stephen Carpenter & Jeffrey Obrow
The Kindred is one of the best (if not the best) low-budget/high concept/higher effort creature features ever forged, and it's a crime that it's not talked about more often. Part of the problem, one imagines, is its unfortunate relegated-to-VHS status, but allegedly Synapse Films has been formulating a long-gestating remedy to this issue that will hopefully come to pass one day soon. The Kindred boasts an elaborate pseudo-scientific premise that allows for much monster carnage, including (among its greatest hits) a tentacled creature living under the porch and a woman metamorphosing into a fish. The practical effects are as gooey as they are gorgeous, managing at times to be jaw-dropping in intensity and ambition. And the film doesn't settle for visual splendor alone: it also features a group of (relatively speaking) intelligent and mature scientist protagonists who are likeable enough that the film can't bring itself to kill them all. The Kindred is by the same writer/director team who, just a few years prior, assembled the wonderfully gory and grim college slasher The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982). As good as that earlier film is, The Kindred is leaps and bounds better in formulation and execution, foreshadowing great future genre efforts from this duo that (sadly) never came.
House of Dark Shadows (1970) dir. Dan Curtis
Walking into Dan Curtis's colorful big-screen adaptation of his own daytime black and white soap opera without being at all familiar with the source material was, I'd read in countless reviews, a mistake. The film necessarily condenses plotlines that ran for months on end over countless hours on television, and because of such takes some rather abrupt and jarring narrative leaps. Turns out, I adored House of Dark Shadows specifically because of its refusal to hold my hand while shifting through its dense array of characters and motivations. An astute viewer will have little trouble reconciling all of the film's bits and pieces, and will soon thrill to its sumptuous atmospheric pleasures and its refusal to slacken its mad dash to its gory finish line. This is an American Gothic in the grand and garish Hammer style, and anyone who cherishes that sort of spectacle knows how rare a bird it is. Thank you, Tim Burton, for making this film and its sequel's digital video debuts possible.
Night of Dark Shadows (1971) dir. Dan Curtis
The second Dark Shadows film, Night of Dark Shadows, features the notable absence of first film and series' star, Jonathan Frid, as the vampire Barnabas Collins. It instead features some later Collins descendants at the old Collinwood estate, dealing with seductive ghosts and witches. This does not at all feel like a step down in quality. Unlike House of Dark Shadows, Night is leisurely paced, and that's actually a benefit to its much less visceral concerns. Its manifestations of its haunting are occasionally more subtle than its soap opera origins would lead you to assume, and all the more effective for it. (Of special note in this regard is its wonderful final sequence, which plays for both subtlety and bombast one after the other and pulls off both with class.) Simultaneously, its emphasis on documenting a decaying domestic relationship feels much more in line with typical soap opera subject matter than House's opulent vampire drama, and becomes (as soap operas tend to) rather engrossing over its hour and a half running time. (I'd love to see its long-lost extended cut, which is said to be fuller and more coherent, though I had no trouble at all following or appreciating what was left after the editor put down his scissors.) Night reminded me, in many ways both broad and specific, of a film director Dan Curtis would soon direct, the Oliver Reed and Karen Black haunted house drama Burnt Offerings (1976). Perhaps the later film was an attempt to right the wrongs perpetrated on the former in the editing room? In any case, Curtis provided us two of the very best American-produced haunted house films in only five years back in the 1970s, and that's no small feat.
Death Ship (1980) dir. Alvin Rakoff
Death Ship isn't as good as its poster, but then that's a tough image to live up to. Nonetheless, it's a decent maritime thriller with an imposing haunted Nazi warship as its primary location. George Kennedy is his usual fantastic self as a beyond-cantakerous retiring ship captain who, upon shipwreck and ghostly possession, takes command of the titular ship and sets his fellow survivors up for blood sacrifice. No matter how you cut it, a haunted ship that runs (figuratively if not actually) on human blood is pretty nifty, and if the Nazi angle adds an exploitative angle to it all, well, all the better for this sort of venture. There's some decent horrific imagery (like when one of out heroes falls into a watery cargo hold full of decaying corpses) alongside equally clunky ones (a bloody shower is treated by its screeching recipient as The Most Horrific Thing of All Time while we scratch our heads). To its credit, Death Ship also prominently features two young children among its cast, and their performances (along with a recurring joke about how the little boy has a clearly defective bladder) somehow didn't inspire me to thunk my head repeatedly against the wall whenever they were on screen. So, kudos. The recent blu-ray release of the film from Scorpion Releasing is a fine one, with a rather sharp transfer and some fun supplementary materials.
The Video Dead (1987) dir. Robert Scott
Excellent mindless trash. Its perplexing central conceit (a haunted television set bound for a paranormal research institute winds up in a suburban home and begins spawning vain, life-envying zombies) is so earnestly accepted by the film's characters that, in its own non-logic, we actually come to accept it. The Video Dead knows that it's funny-- most of the time, at least-- and when it doesn't, as in the case of lead actor Rocky Duvall's gee-whiz performance, it's delectable for reasons of amateurish gung-ho. Its wonderful final act, in which our heroine plays housekeeper and hostess to our confused zombie horde in order to avoid being attacked, feels as if it would fit comfortably in Peter Jackson's early genre work. The Video Dead was released for the first time on a digital format in February by Scream Factory as one half of a monsters-in-the-television-centric blu-ray double feature, the other half being the glorious and long-sought-after Terrorvision (1986). To call this the release of the month would be a gross understatement: seeing these neglected films so lovingly preserved and supplemented is enough to warm the cockles of the most jaded of genre fans' hearts.
The Nest (1988) dir. Terence H. Winkless
Another Scream Factory release from last month was Terence H. Winkless's mutant roach flick The Nest. Before a delay of this release, I had scheduled myself to cover it during January's Nature's Grave feature here at the blog. The film fits snugly into the confines of the Animal Terror genre, sporting all the distinguishing features: reckless scientists, mutated wildlife, unconcerned/complicit local authorities, and a half-baked ecological message. Among its peers, it's an unremarkable effort, despite some occasional flashes of Slugs-level gory brilliance and the presence of the ever-adorable Lisa Langlois (who also starred in the much superior but equally scrappy killer rat flick, Deadly Eyes (1982)). Perhaps the film's biggest issue is how little screentime the cockroaches actually have. For a film explicitly about the insect's ick factor, more could have been gained by keeping their physiology grounded in quasi-reality (or maybe taking the exaggerated Creepshow (1982) approach) rather than by promising flesh-eating mutant roaches (see the above poster) that it can't deliver. We're gifted some nifty looking cat-roach and human-roach hybrids, but it says something that the film's best squirm-producing moment is one in which our protagonist fails to notice the roach swimming around in his coffee cup.
The Night Stalker (1972) dir. John Llewellyn Moxey & The Night Strangler (1973) dir. Dan Curtis
More Dan Curtis goodness in the form of two television movies that spawned a later abbreviated series. Kolchak, a perpetually down-on-his-luck crack investigative reporter, is a fabulous character, and Darren McGavin plays him with all the easy underdog charm that's required and then some. Besides the fun creature plots (a bit more interesting in The Night Strangler, with its inverted Frankensteinian overtones), the most enjoyable aspect of the films is Kolchak's explosive friendship with his weaselly editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). The two are akin to an old bickering couple who can't seem to get rid of one another, despite the constant betrayals and disappointments. Considered together, the films are formulaic (they possess essentially identical plots, with different creatures and locations subbed in), but because it's such a satisfying formula it's difficult to complain about. (My understanding of the later Kolchak series is that it continues the basic formula established in these films, in essence creating the Monster of the Week plot adopted in-part by later series like The X-Files and Fringe.) My hope is to return to the world of Kolchak, and soon.